Michael L. Roberts reviews the 'Best of Enemies'
In the bathroom of his Sorrentine home, Gore Vidal draws our attention to a series of photographs depicting his ten televised debates with William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1968. It is from this vantage point, suspended some 2,000 feet above the sea, that Vidal would later come to ponder the “decline of the West” as he perceived it. By the end of the ‘Best of Enemies’, it becomes apparent that Vidal considered himself altogether victorious in life over Buckley, for their rivalry existed beyond their ideological differences. Both parties yearned in their long and exposed careers to be considered as ‘the better person’.
Spurred on by the potential of high-end dissent and even violent confrontation, the then failing ABC News network charged ahead with plans to bring Buckley and Vidal together for the Republican and Democratic Conventions in Miami and Chicago, so keen were they to bolster their truncated version of nightly Convention coverage with a provocative media event. Against the backdrop of the confident, efficient and homogenous deliveries of NBC and CBS, which tended to cement rather than disrupt ideas and images of America in the minds of its people, an all-encompassing intellectual debate addressing the cleavage at the heart of the nation’s identity was to change the nature of television punditry immeasurably.
With generous use of original footage, insightful (if somewhat Left-heavy) contributors, and the subtle vocal performances of Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow reading Buckley and Vidal’s diaries respectively, the ‘Best of Enemies’ effortlessly captures the essence of its two protagonists, and their parallel matter/anti-matter existence. As the late Christopher Hitchens declares, “there was nothing feigned about their mutual antipathy”. We are reminded of their attempts at office – Buckley’s loss in New York State, which nonetheless solidified a new Conservative constituency of angry white ethnic ‘Goldwater’ voters in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the outer boroughs in 1965; and Vidal’s assurance as heir to a political dynasty brought effectively to an end by a run-in with Senator Bobby Kennedy. Most crucially portrayed is their understanding of the significance and potential vitality of television to their ideas. Through appearances on the ‘Woody Allen Show’, ‘Playboy After Dark’ and Buckley’s own ‘Firing Line’, we are treated to both characters’ flawless capacity for the tropes of rhetoric, and their innate ability to appeal as elitist conquerors of the ‘eastern establishment’ to an otherwise anti-intellectual America.
The debates themselves build with all the intensity of a Tennessee Williams play, from the safe-from-militancy Miami location of the Republican Convention, to the shrieking slaughterhouses, protest-filled stockyards and fortress approach of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. By the ninth debate, ongoing clashes between police and protestors come to reflect the core problem at the centre of the Buckley/Vidal exchange – in the pursuit of freedom and happiness, how can the racial, religious and socio-economic divides be overcome to prevent a nation from tearing at the seams? The tension develops into a series of ad hominem attacks by both debaters, and culminates in the now famous Buckley line “I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered”.
Vidal was later to describe a debater as a ‘happy warrior’ when engaged in televised punditry. His analysis of Buckley’s loss of calm during the ninth debate depicted his opponent as a cuckoo clock whose door had finally been opened for all the world to see. It is suggested in the film that Vidal had waited around for Buckley to die, in order to have the last word – and indeed his last written words regarding his great opponent suggested he “R.I.P. WFBJr… in Hell”. For Buckley, the ninth debate was to haunt the rest of his career. A clinical and rational dismantler of his rivals, he exhibited an expert capacity for neutralising the hidden driving forces behind opposing standpoints, and had prided himself on remaining unmoved by opponents’ efforts to destabilise him.
In a masked way, the concept of happiness pervades the film and is most poignantly explored when Buckley, with noble Pablo Neruda-esque brevity, declares himself tired of being alive. Ultimately, a combination of their lifelong rivalry, the unfinished business of ’68, and the watered-down intellect of subsequent television news weighed heavily on both happy warriors. The irony for the twenty first century viewer remains that the ‘theatre’ Buckley and Vidal so expertly married with debate has since usurped it entirely.
- How Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley spawned Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly and all the horrors of TV news, Andrew O’Heir, Salon, 6 August 2015
- The Buckley vs. Vidal debates: The original knock-down, drag-out TV, John Anderson, Washington Post, 5 August 2015
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